I have a confession to make. It might make me unpopular, and it might even offend you. I’m sorry if it does, but I have to be honest. I don’t love Paris.
So many people seem to have a love affair with Paris. Especially among Americans I know, there is a romanticizing of the city. I understand where it comes from, and I do appreciate the beauty and culture and all that Paris has to offer. I just don’t lust for it the way others seem to. I have a different relationship with Paris.
Our First Date
My first visit to Paris was in 2008. It was my first trip to Europe and I visited London, Paris, and Brussels with my husband. It was a great trip and I enjoyed our time in Paris, for the most part.
We stayed in a lovely hotel, the Hotel Eiffel Seine, which had a great location near the Eiffel Tower and a Metro station. We had an amazing French meal at La Petite Chaise, supposedly the oldest restaurant in Paris.
We did many of the things a first-timer in Paris should do. We visited the Eiffel Tower, including a trip all the way to the top, as well as return trips at night to enjoy the light show.
We had multiple café sitting sessions with salads and coffee and desserts. We strolled neighborhoods eating bakery-bought bread, admiring architectural details and design.
But on the way to Montmartre, things got shitty. Literally. We got off at the wrong Metro station and ended up in a neighborhood that didn’t feel welcoming. As we quickly made our way to where we thought we needed to go, feeling a little stressed and nervous and trying not to look too much like lost and vulnerable tourists, we startled a pigeon. As it flew up and over us, it pooped on me. “Enjoy Paris,” he said with his poop that dripped in my hair, on my shoulder, and down my arm.
Fortunately, we found public restrooms nearby where I could clean up as best I could. Later I purchased some heavy-duty detergent and hand washed my coat – the only coat I had on the trip, the coat perfect for that quaint Paris rain – in the hotel sink.
(Looking back on that now, I laugh a bit at how stressful it was to enter a store and buy detergent where nothing was in my native language and I didn’t recognize any brands at all. I had no idea that would be my daily routine in the future!)
Climbing the steep and seemingly endless stairs up to see the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur was already a bit unpleasant for its sheer physical torture, and was made worse by the feeling of being shit on. Still, I did my best to enjoy the views from Montmartre.
Eating in a creperie and admiring the artists at the Place du Tertre helped me recover somewhat, but that first trip to Paris will always be soiled by that pigeon. That poop.
Travel tip! If you are visiting Paris, be sure to check out the Paris Pass options for the most economical ways to see the sights and use city transportation.
A Second Chance
My second visit to Paris was more recently, in 2016. My family and I went along with extended family visiting from the U.S. I was ready to give it another chance. I did have some fond memories of that first visit and hoped to relive the good and forget the shit.
Unfortunately, the trip was overshadowed by advisories warning visitors of possible terrorist attacks. Not on purpose, we just so happened to arrive in Paris on the night of the 2016 UEFA European Championship game in which France was playing Portugal, in their stadium in Paris.
The city, which is huge and always alive, was ALIVE with futbol fanatics. There was definitely a buzz in the air, which was somewhat fun, but also a little unnerving. We joined the crowds riding the Metro and visited Notre Dame, the Arch de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées.
Both times in Paris, I resented the crowds and the shady characters that target tourists with cheap trinkets for sale, scams, and pick-pocket opportunities. Yes, that might just mean I need to avoid these locations and go elsewhere in the city, but it still impacts my view of the city.
I dislike being in crowds at high profile tourist destinations, especially while under a high terror alert warning. After a dinner at Chez Leon, I made sure we were back safely in our hotel -which was kind of gross so I will not recommend it! – before the futbol match started.
France lost the championship game that night, so naturally, fans rioted, including a clash with police at the base of the Eiffel Tower that was so severe, the tower was closed to tourists the entire next day for safety reasons. This was unfortunate, since that was the day we set aside to go up!
Instead, we did a little shopping on the Rue de Commerce, had a great lunch at Baagaa, and headed back to Belgium, leaving our extended family behind for an extra night so they could attempt the Eiffel Tower again the next day.
To be fair, Paris, maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s me. It’s not that I don’t like you, I just haven’t figured you out yet. Maybe our relationships with cities are like our relationships with people. We can’t get along with everyone. We don’t all have things in common. And Paris, I just haven’t figured out what you and I have in common. I don’t know where I fit in within you.
We still don’t know each other very well and it is early in our relationship. I am not going to give up on us yet. I recognize that I need to find the part of you that better speaks to me. The part of you that I can understand and feel comfortable in. I am pretty sure I will visit you again. I hope in that visit that I am able to avoid the predictable tourist destinations and explore the more real you. Maybe the third time will be the charm that we need!
On a very real and somber note, I feel compelled to say that on our more recent visit to Paris, I was saddened to see with my own eyes the conditions in which migrants/refugees are currently living in Paris. (The Independent has some informative reporting on this here, here, here, here. Other reporting here and here, and more if you choose to look for it.)
The “refugee crisis” (for lack of a better term) in Europe is a very real, very complex issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I do understand that while France and the U.K. are playing politics with how to admit and provide for refugees, the refugees are caught in awful circumstances. Seeing these circumstances firsthand will give you some perspective really quickly. All of a sudden, gallivanting around Paris on a dreamy, Instagrammable holiday no longer seems important, or even appropriate.
Refugees are humans who deserve to have their basic needs met and to be treated with respect and humane decency. Until it appears that Paris, and France at large, is doing a better job of addressing this humanitarian issue, it doesn’t excite me as a place to visit (although I have started looking into volunteer opportunities with groups providing refugee support and assistance in France). Here’s hoping the newly elected Emmanuel Macron will be able to lead the country to some positive changes regarding this matter.